Thursday, May 01, 2003

OSHA Kills

Read it here.

If you check out OSHA's Website, you'll find a page entitled OSHA Saves Lives. "Not so," say "scholars" at the Mercatus Center. Despite OSHA's director John Henshaw's assertion that “Safety and health add value to businesses, workplaces and people's lives,” a recent study by two authors from the anti-government Mercatus Institute argues that, in fact, OSHA inspections actually cause more workplace fatalities.

How so, you ask? Well I can't begin to describe the statistical methods that the two authors, Jonathan Klick and Thomas Stratmann, both of George Mason University, used to come to this conclusion in their study. I'll leave the deconstruction to those who can understand statistics better than I. You can also read a simpler, abbreviated version of the study if visit your local newsstand and pick up the latest copy of Regulation magazine, published by the right-wing, libertarian Cato Institute. (It doesn't appear in electronic form.)

The most interesting part is their explanation of this phenomenon. From the Regulation article, here it is in a nutshell:
Surprisingly, we found that fines have no statistically significant effect on death rates and increasing inspections actually leads to significantly higher fatality rates. On average, we found that an additional 100 inspections in a given state-industry in a particular year leads to between 1 and 2.5 additional deaths in that industry

What accounts for such a surprising result?...When the firm increases its efforts because of OSHA enforcement, the worker rationally substitutes away from his own efforts. That is, if the firm is doing more to protect the worker, the worker has less incentive to protect himself. (emphases added)
So, let me get this straight. You have a bunch of employees in a dangerous workplace. OSHA inspects the workplace, finds violations and cites the company, which starts paying more attention to workplace safety. But, "increased worker safety measures induce riskier behaviors on the part of workers," according to the abstract of the study.

The typical "rational" worker, figuring that OSHA has forced his employer to be more responsible, now "has less incentive to protect himself." No sooner does the employer finally get serious about safety then workers suddenly start jumping down into unshored trenches, crawling down into unmonitored confined spaces, sticking themselves with HIV-contaminated needles and climbing tall buildings without fall protection. "Respirators? We don't need no stinking respirators!"

It must be so, because, according to its web page, Mercatus boasts that "We draw upon both real world experience and wide reading in multiple academic disciplines."

The report is almost not worth analyzing, but a few things stick out. Most glaring is the authors' assumption that injuries and fatalities are caused by workers' unsafe behaviors and actions.(For more on behavioralism, see here and here.) When management takes care of safety (under pressure from OSHA), workers somehow won't feel they have to "behave" safely. Well if the authors actually had an "real world experience" they'd know that the reason workers are injured and killed at work is because they are exposed to unsafe conditions and hazards.

One thing they did get right. If workers are not involved in the employer's safety program -- in identifying and controlling hazards -- the program is unlikely to be effective.

So who are these guys? Cato is a well endowed "libertarian" Washington D.C. think tank that "seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace." They publish Regulation magazine, which regularly features anti-regulation and articles about the benefits of abolishing OSHA.

The Mercatus Center is part of George Mason University. They are known for coming out with annual reports on the (high) cost of regulations to American business , and other papers arguing for the abolition of OSHA. The director of the Mercatus Regulatory Studies Program is Wendy Gramm, George H.W. Bush's Administrator for Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget and Executive Director of the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief.

Not appearing on Gramm's resume is the fact that she is the wife of former right-wing Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) and a former member of the Enron Board of Directors. The George Mason/Mercatus campus also happened to be where the Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao decided to hold one of her three ergonomics "forums," after the Congress and Bush Administration repealed the ergonomics standard.

I am nominating this study as a future member of the Loony Right-Wing Theory Hall of Fame. It's reminiscent of a theory pushed by the Office of Management and Budget under George Bush I which postulated that health and safety regulations led to higher worker fatality rates because regulations cost businesses money, forcing them to pay workers less. The lower one's income, the worse their diet, leading to all kinds of bad health effects.

Oh, and the surprising conclusion of the Regulation article: "If workers effectively undo safety regulations, it is doubtful that OSHA can do much to "save lives, prevent injuries, and protect the health of American workers."

For this I stay up late at night?